LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
When he had finished with the golf balls, he stripped off his shirt and trousers and gave himself fifteen minutes’ callisthenics, handsprings and front and back somersaults and three times round the grass plot walking on his hands. He was as brown as a mild Havana from suntan and there wasn’t a hint of sweat on him. He finished his exercises, said something to the deckhand, and then the wonder boy was off, trotting down the hillside. I watched him, catching a glimpse of his black briefs now and again as he light-heartedly leapt the odd six-foot bush that got in his way. He reached the water’s edge directly below, dived in and was swimming towards the yacht in a fast crawl, a spout of foam going up behind him as though he had a ten horse-power marine engine fixed to his backside...
[Later] An hour later Siegfried appeared. He was wearing bathing trunks and white sandals and he joined them by the willow and did a few press-ups and back-flips.
commentary: Yet again TracyK at Bitter Tea and Mystery is to blame – she hasn’t yet done a blogpost on this book, but she read it in January and mentioned it, and next thing I know I’ve downloaded it and read it over a quiet evening. Well – quiet for me, not for protagonist Rex Carver, a private investigator who does jobs on the side for British Intelligence. This is the first of a series of books about him.
He is employed to follow a young German girl, Katerina, who has left her job as an au pair: a family friend 'merely wishes to check that she is all right'. We all know it isn’t going to be as simple as that, there is more to this story, and of course the intelligence services are involved. Rex goes down to Brighton to track her down, and checks on her welfare by dating her, kissing her, and rather falling in love with her. Then she disappears – the first of several times in the book. But Rex is always able to find her: either because she leaves him a note, or because as part of the action he starts to work for several other organizations who are looking for her, and all have their resources. Why are all these people quite so keen to find her? It has to be said that the reason, when it comes, is wholly unexpected. It’s best to not know too much about the plot, as it came as a complete surprise to me.
Carver, Katerina, and a number of other key characters travel all over Europe – Paris, Yugoslavia and Venice – in that 60s thriller manner. I can’t say I always knew what was going on – not helped by Carver telling lies (imagine!) to other people so I was never sure if I had missed something, or he was just making it up. I never understood how he made contact with any of his undercover colleagues while out in the field – I got caught out over and over again when the revelation came.
So yes – an excellent 60s thriller, highly enjoyable: with a fairly extraordinary climax, and the best use of a false leg in any book ever. (Yes, better than Robert Galbraith's Career of Evil.)
No discussion of Victor Canning is complete without bringing in John Higgins and his Victor Canning website. As the (also excellent) Existential Ennui site describes it:
By far the best place on the web to read about Victor Canning is John Higgins's Victor Canning pages, which is the kind of exhaustive site one wishes all forgotten, overlooked or otherwise under-appreciated authors could lay claim to.Apparently John Higgins actually answered questions on Canning’s Birdcage series on Mastermind in 2009.
John visited my blog after I featured The Rainbird Pattern (the best Canning book I have read, a fine novel in anyone’s canon, and one of my best books of 2016) and, in his kind and knowledgeable way, was able to direct me to all mentions of bedjackets in Canning’s books (see the comments under the post). Regular readers will know that that is the way to my heart… here it is in Whip Hand:
She looked nice sitting up in bed, her dark hair tied back at the nape of her neck with a ribbon, a little bed jacket demurely buttoned close up to her neck.
John writes very entertainingly about this book on his blog (though near the end there is, in a glancing way, more about the plot than I am revealing – but then he is pointing out that his clue is all over the jacket of an early edition of the book. It is very much a spoiler cover). He discusses Canning’s, and Carver’s, attitudes to women – which I found most interesting too.
There is a lot of comment on women which is very much of its time, and has to be judged in its contemporary context, and a lot of undressing and wearing skimpy bikinis - but then the passage above shows that men have their moments too.
But there are three main women in the story – Carver’s secretary Wilkins (a regular in this series I gather), the search object Katerina, and a French helper called Verite. All three are strong women, intriguing, independent and fascinating. Carver’s relations with them are unusual and well-delineated – I was very impressed.
There are some very enjoyable lines in the book – Canning was very witty:
[of an explanation] It held water if you didn’t have far to carry it.
“There’s nothing you can do. The wheel started spinning some time ago. I’ve just got to wait and see where the ball finishes.”I was surprised to see so many reviews for this fairly niche thriller on amazon, but that turns out to be because most of them are about the Dick Francis book, Whip Hand, apparently an easy mistake to make. This book has no connection with horse-racing.
There is an odd connection to, of all things, an Agatha Christie book, but I will say no more.
And, I look forward to hearing what Tracy thought of the book in due course.